In this op-ed writer Tayo Bero explains why “woke” awards-show speeches are nice but don’t matter if the activism and advocacy behind them isn’t happening.
In 1973, Hollywood star and activist Marlon Brando shocked his peers and many watching around the country when he refused his Academy Award for best actor in The Godfather. Brando was instead represented by little-known Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who refused the award on the actor’s behalf and spoke passionately in protest of Hollywood's stereotypical and harmful portrayals of Native Americans. Some in the audience booed the move, while others in the room cheered and praised Littlefeather for her bravery.
Actor Joaquin Phoenix is being similarly lauded for issues he brought to the stage of this year’s BAFTAs, which took place in London earlier this month. When called upon to accept the best-actor award for his role in 2019’s Joker, Phoenix took the opportunity to call out the show’s all-white-nominee lineup. “I think that we send a very clear message to people of color that you’re not welcome here,” he said to a silent audience. “I think that’s a message that we’re sending to people that have contributed so much to our medium and our industry and in ways that we benefit from.”
Particularly noteworthy was Phoenix’s willingness to admit his own complicity in that system of privilege and erasure, as well as address some of the nuance that is often lost behind more performative “diversity” initiatives. “I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem. I [myself] have not done everything in my power to ensure that the sets I work on are inclusive,” he said. “But I think it’s more than just having sets that are multicultural. I think that we have to really do the hard work to truly understand systemic racism.”
And in recent times, gestures like Phoenix’s are becoming more and more common. Five years after #OscarsSoWhite — a movement started by a Black woman, April Reign, to raise awareness about a lack of diversity at the prestigious awards ceremony — many other celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Frances McDormand have taken to the podium to take on critical issues in Hollywood, from diversity to the pay gap.
And while some have questioned the genuineness of these public-facing moves, for me this is a no-brainer: Celebrities should absolutely be speaking out about inequalities in Hollywood, and on the largest stage possible.
These award shows give a massive platform and legitimacy to complex issues that marginalized people have condemned for years. But they also force industry gatekeepers and Hollywood executives to confront these issues in such a public way, sending the important message that the practice and celebration of art cannot be separated from the politics of the people who embody or create that art.
As encouraging as it is to see these crucial conversations finally start to happen, that awareness becomes meaningless if real change isn’t being reflected onscreen, behind the camera, and at prestigious award shows. It’s encouraging, for example, to see actors and studios implement inclusion riders, a contractual clause that essentially ensures that typically marginalized groups (such as women, people of color, people with disabilities, and queer people) are depicted onscreen in proportion to their representation in the population.
It’s also important that the people who wield the most power and privilege take on more of the heavy lifting when it comes to ensuring real inclusivity in Hollywood, something Phoenix acknowledges in his BAFTAs speech. “I think that it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it, so that’s on us,” he said.
And he’s right. The racial dynamics at play when it comes to who chooses to get on their awards-show soapbox can’t be ignored. For most white celebrities, the repercussions for speaking out about the failings of their peers when it comes to inclusion are slim to none, and most never have to worry about facing the same backlash that people of color do for speaking out in the same way. Littlefeather says she was blacklisted for her speech at the Oscars in ’73. And more recently, Gabrielle Union was fired from being a judge on NBC’s America’s Got Talent after speaking out about the toxic culture on the show’s set, which included allegations of racial insensitivity.
And aside from these imbalances, there’s still more fundamental work to be done within the casting and hiring processes in the industry. The original authors of the inclusion-riders concept say that although there has been much progress since the clauses started being introduced, issues like pay discrepancy and workplace harassment still contribute to gender and racial gaps when it comes to inclusion in the film industry.
So while these speeches are a necessary and important way of calling out the powers that be in Hollywood, that conversation is only meaningful when accompanied by real, tangible action on the ground. And this work needs to be done by the people who built these systems, and not at the expense of those who it should be protecting.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue